3 min Read
November 15, 2016

Managing through game-changing moments

That Holy *!*&^%$! Moment

We’ve all had them: moments when you realize what’s just happened is a game-changer—and you didn’t see it coming. Sometimes the change is internal: a key staff or board member unexpectedly departs, budgets are cut, fraud occurs, etc. Sometimes, despite our best-laid plans, the change is external: a recession, a national crisis, or the political landscape dramatically shifts.

Of course, we should nurture positive cultures within our organizations, make succession plans, build up cash reserves, and plan for the unanticipated. We should eat well, exercise, look at our phones less, and get a good night’s sleep, too. But this important (not urgent—until it’s too late) self-care is often the first stuff to go during a busy time, or when staff is spread thin.

After the fact, everybody has an opinion about what might have been done differently—and, sure, we might have done so. But what do you do right now, when the $#%@) has hit the fan?

Empower individuals not teams

Nonprofit cultures value buy-in and collaboration. But making decisions slowly and with too many cooks in the kitchen can be devastating during a moment of crisis, especially when others in your space are moving quickly and appear to be better prepared.

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, just hours after it was announced that Donald Trump had won the U.S. presidential election, many progressive nonprofits released statements, updated their websites, and sprung into action. Some had the foresight to prepare ‘what if’ scenarios anticipating Trump’s victory, but others hadn’t. What they had was accountable, agile leadership; people who were empowered to make decisions and act fast. They left their slower-moving peers in the dust.

Scared that the wrong decisions will be made? A bad decision made quickly is better than a better decision made slowly in many contexts. If this style of leadership feels out of whack with business-as-usual at your organization, consider giving people temporary titles and a clear timeline when they hold the seat so it’s clear this isn’t a permanent change (for instance, “Election Response Communications Chief”).

Prioritize speed and candor over comprehensive communications

Your organization’s values (deeply-held beliefs) should guide as you decide how to respond and craft statements or other communications. An organization that has transparency as a core value, for instance, shouldn’t hesitate to share what’s known and not yet known with its community.

Panic and unproductive chatter will fill the void when it’s not clear what’s going on. Communicate with your key stakeholders quickly and as candidly as possible. Don’t wait until you have all the answers or a perfectly polished statement.

Your organization’s brand strategy should also help you select how you communicate. Use your positioning (the big idea you want people to associate with your organization) as a yardstick for your statements, and be sure the tone and style of your response reflects your nonprofit’s personality, not just that of individuals.

Learn this time for next time

Building sustainable, resilient organizations should be a priority for every nonprofit’s leadership team, and unexpected moments are just one of many places where that work pays off, potentially changing a bad game-changer into a good one.

Make someone accountable for keeping track of the useful solutions and new ideas that bubble up along the way during today’s crisis or moment of significant change. Create a collaborative document your team can add to, with categories such as, “What worked well was…” and “next time, we should…” or “before this happens again, let’s….” Once the dust settles, debrief with everyone involved using this document to guide your discussion, then decide what, when, how, and who will advance whatever is needed before the next unexpected change.